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'It was so good of you to take me up with you, Miss Hardcastle,' Hester Goodrum said as she climbed into the comfortable chaise. 'Lady Mary promised to send me to Cavendish Park in comfort, but she was called away to her sister's bedside and forgot all about me. I have to be there by the end of the week, because the marquess sent word the young people would be alone by then, except for their servants, of course.'
Sarah Hardcastle looked at the woman sitting opposite her and nodded. Hester was in her late twenties, attractive, though not pretty, and kind-hearted. She had heard of her predicament and been moved to offer assistance.
'Well, I'm returning to my home in the north of England and we must pass within twenty miles of Cavendish Park. It is no trouble to take a detour, Hester.'
'My fiance told me I was a fool to agree to this position,' Hester went on as she settled in her seat. 'He wanted me to give up work and go home to Chester and marry him.'
'Why didn't you?' Sarah asked and caught at the rope as the chaise moved off with a lurch. 'I fear Coachman is in one of his moods again. If he continues this way, I shall have to call a halt and give him a scolding.'
'Please do not do so on my account,' Hester said. 'I should like to get married, miss. I've been saving for years, but Jim needs more money to set up for himself in an inn. He's got some savings, but we both know we need to wait for another year at least.'
'That's a shame ' Sarah looked at her thoughtfully. She'd been told the governess's story and it was part of the reason she'd offered her the ride in her chaise. 'How much more do you need to save?'
'I suppose a hundred pounds might be enough ' Hester sighed. 'If we both save hard this year, we may just manage it, though I contribute very little and it may take much longer.'
She was not a young woman. Sarah felt sympathy for her, because time was passing her by and her youth was fading. It was so ironic that Hester should be longing for marriage, but did not have enough money while she, Sarah Hardcastle, was doing her best to avoid being married because she'd had rather too much of it.
Was her plan too outrageous to have a chance of success? She'd thought about it all the previous night and her stomach was tying itself in knots. No doubt Hester would think she'd run mad.
'Supposing I offered you two hundred pounds and gave you two of my best dresses in return for your reference from Lady Mary and the gowns you have in your trunk? Would you change places with me? I mean, let me take your place as the governess at Cavendish Parkand you go home to marry your fiance?'
There, she'd said it out loud. Did it sound as mad as she imagined?
Hester was staring at her in bewilderment. 'What did you say, miss? I don't think I heard right.'
'I offered you two hundred pounds to let me have some of your clothes and the reference Lady Mary gave you. You can do what you wish with the money.'
'You want to be a governess? Why?' Hester was stunned. 'You're a rich young woman, Miss Hardcastle. Why would you wish to be a governess?'
'I need to disappear for a while and it seems an ideal situation to me. Your employer has never seen you. The girl is almost seventeen so will be easy to manage and the boy is going to college in six monthsso how could I go wrong? My tutors considered me a bright pupil. I imagine I can teach the boy mathematics and geography and the girl music, literature, French, Latin, drawing and dancing. What more does she need to know?'
'Nothing, I shouldn't think,' Hester said, but looked anxious. 'I don't know what to say, missit doesn't seem right. We should be deceiving my employer '
'But if he didn't even bother to interview you he can't be that bothered about his grandchildren. All he wants is to keep them out of his hairand I can do that as easily as you.'
'Perhaps better, miss. You've a way with you. People pay attention when Miss Hardcastle speaks.'
'That is because my father left me a fortune invested in mills and mines and I've run them myself since he died when I was just nineteen.'
'How old are you, missif you don't mind my asking?'
'I'm five and twenty,' Sarah said and sighed. 'My aunt and uncle have been trying to marry me off for months. They say I need a man to help me and they're afraid I shall die an old maid.' 'Do they bully you, miss?'
'No, I shall not lie. Aunt Jenny is kind and my uncle is well meaning, but I have no intention of marrying simply to please them. I came away because my uncle would not let the subject drop.'
'What will happen to your mills if you're not there, miss?'
'I have managers and a man of business I trust. I shall keep in touch with him by letterand it will just be for a short time, until I've made up my mind about something. After that I'll give notice and your pupils will have a new governess. Surely my influence cannot harm them in that time?' Sarah leaned forward. 'Will you think about it today? This evening when we stop at the inn you can tell me. If your answer is yes, we'll change clothes. In the morning I'll send you on in my chaise to Chesterand I'll go by post-chaise to Cavendish Park.'
'I don't know what to say ' Hester looked worried, clearly torn between taking this wonderful chance and fulfilling her duty. 'It's such an opportunity for me. It would mean the world to my Jim to have his inn this year instead of waiting.'
'Well, the choice is yours. I shan't twist your arm. If you say no, I'll simply find another way to disappear for a while.'
Hester nodded, settling back against the squabs with a sigh. She was obviously tempted and Sarah crossed her fingers under the folds of her elegant travelling gown. Being a governess would be a safe environment for a wealthy heiress to hide in until she could shake off the feeling of being persecuted for her money.
Why had her father had to die in that accident at the mill? Tobias Hardcastle had always been a hands-on employer, not above taking off his frock coat and rolling up his sleeves. He'd started out with fifty pounds left to him by his grandfather and built up his huge business using his brains and his ability to work twenty hours out of every twenty-four for years.
Before she died, Sarah's mother had complained bitterly that she wasn't sure when he'd had time to give her a child. It wasn't true, of course, for he came home for meals and occasionally had Sunday off, but he'd certainly put in long hours to ensure that his business empire was solid. Sarah couldn't claim to do the same, but she had a knack of choosing her employees well and of inspiring loyalty. She'd taken up the challenge at the start because it was there and she did not wish to hand over her father's empire to someone who might abuse it. However, she had begun to grow a little tired of the constant rounds of meetings and bookkeeping that were an ever-present part of her life. It was time to sit back a little, for her life was slipping away and some might already consider her as being past the age of making a good marriage. Her managers would make sure the mills continued to prosper during her absence and also the two copper mines she owned in Cornwall. It was on her return from her biannual visit to the mines that she'd stopped off to visit her own governess and there met Miss Hester Goodrum.
Something about the young woman had appealed to Sarah immediately. Had Hester been a woman who wanted a lifetime career she would have offered her a position as her companion, but Hester had confided her hopes for marriage and that had set Sarah's quick mind working.
It was a little deceitful to pretend to be someone she wasn't, of course, but she wasn't harming anyone. She wouldn't steal the silver or teach the children to swear and drink gin. A smile touched her lips, for the idea of being the children's mentor was pleasant. Sarah had worked hard since her father's death, giving little thought to pleasure of any kind. She'd been asked to dinners and evening affairs at the homes of her father's friends, but since she knew that the ones with wives wanted to buy her mills and the widowers wanted to marry her to get them cheaply, she normally found such evenings tedious.
Even at school she'd been aware that she wasn't really one of the gentry. She was the daughter of a rich man who'd bought the right to live in a big house and own land, but she wasn't one of the blue bloods. The other girls were friendly to a degree, but she'd felt the barrier between them and knew that they laughed at her northern accent, which had all but disappeared now. Sometimes, if she was upset, it returned, but her teachers had earned their money. Mr Hardcastle had wanted his daughter to be a lady and to all intents and purposes she wasexcept that she wasn't fully accepted into their society. They welcomed her on the boards of their charities and they were even friendlier towards her money, which they grabbed as soon as it was offered, but she was seldom invited to an intimate affair at their homes. Occasionally she would be invited to a large dance because of her influence, but she wasn't the kind of woman that gentlemen thought of marrying.
Well, that wasn't quite true, either, Sarah mused, glancing out of the window. She did have one rather persistent suitor. Sir Roger Grey had asked her to marry him three times now and he didn't like being refused. Sarah was aware that he was in financial difficulty, though he'd managed to hide that fact from her uncle and most of his acquaintance. Sarah had asked one of her agents to make enquiries and his report was disturbing. Sir Roger gave the appearance of being wealthy and respectable, but in reality was a rake and a gambler, and the last man she would ever wed. However, he was difficult to shake off, for he seemed to have taken it into his head that she would come round to the idea if he continued to press her. Unfortunately, her uncle was completely taken in and believed him to be a man of his word.
It was Sir Roger's tactics at the charity ball in Newcastle that had made her decide to leave for Cornwall a month earlier than usual. He'd tried to kiss her and he'd fumbled at her breasts. She'd had to fight him off and had scratched his cheek in her efforts.
'You little hellcat.' He'd put a hand to his cheek in shock. 'You will be sorry for that, Sarah. I'll teach you to respect your betters.'
'I do not consider you my superior, sir,' she'd retorted. 'I have no intention of being seduced. If you thought to compromise me and force me into marriage, you are far off the mark. I would rather have fingers pointed at me in the street than marry you.'
That was perfectly true, for she would rather die than marry a man like him, but it was also true that she didn't wish to lose her good name. Nor would she care to be whispered about or pointed out as an object of shame.
'If you would marry Sam Goodjohn, or Harry Barton, you'd be safe from rogues like that,' her uncle had told her when she'd told him what had happened. 'They're good men and run mills of their own so you could stay home and be a wife and mother as you ought. It's time you married and thought about a family, Sarahunless you want to die an old maid.'
'I know you want to protect me, Uncle William,' Sarah replied. 'But I should hate to be married simply for the sake of my fortune. When I find a man I love who loves me, I'll get married.'
'Love,' her uncle scoffed at the idea. 'When did love ever get you anywhere? You need a man to protect you and look after your business, young woman. Don't leave it too late or you may find that even money won't get you the kind of man you need.'
Her uncle's scolding had jerked her from her complacency. It was true that time was slipping by and she was no longer a young girl. If she wanted a family she must marryand Sarah had begun to realise what she might miss if she did not.
Was she so ill-favoured that she needed money to buy her a husband? Sarah knew she wasn't beautiful by any means. Her hair was dark brown, and her nose was straight. Her mouth was bigger than she liked and she wished she had thin lips like Hester. Miss Goodrum was prettier than she was, but Sarah didn't feel ugly. When she dressed in her best she was attractive enough and people said she had a nice smile.
Was it impossible that she would find love?
She felt she might have more chance of it if she were not her father's heir. When men looked at her they saw the rich Miss Hardcastle and they wanted what she could give them. The hard-headed ones wanted to build up her business and get richer; the spendthrifts wanted a ticket to the easy life.
Sarah wanted A little sigh escaped her. She wanted a man who would make her laugh. A man who appreciated music, poetry and beautiful gardens someone who would love her for who she was, not for her money.
Was she asking too much? Perhaps her uncle was right. It might be sensible to accept one of her suitors and have the lawyers draw up a contract that gave her the right to retain control of her business and protect her fortune.
It was the simple way out of her predicament. A business arrangement that would protect her from fortune hunters and unscrupulous businessmen who wanted the vast wealth her father had bequeathed her. Until recently, Sarah would have thought it a perfectly sensible idea, but for some reason she had begun to feel a slight dissatisfaction with her life as it presently was. She had not thought of marriage whilst her father lived and in the first years after his death she'd been too wrapped up in her work to consider it. Of late she'd begun to notice children playing in the parks and sweethearts walking together in the sunshine. If she did not marry, she would miss so much.
Was she lonely? Certainly not! She had friends and loyal employees and was too busy to be lonely.
Yet surely there was another way to live? She must have time to consider, to decide what she wanted of life. What Sarah needed was a place to escape, to hide and to be someone else for a while .
'Yes, I'll do it, miss. Like you said, it can't hurt anyoneand Jim will be so happy to have me home
Sarah blinked, dragging her thoughts back to the present. For a moment she couldn't believe that Hester had agreed, then, as she saw the other woman was in earnest, she smiled.
'Thank you so much, Hester,' she said and leaned forwards to touch her hand. 'You won't regret it. I shan't do anything that could harm your good name, I promise you.'
'Lord, miss, as if you would.' Hester laughed, looking younger as her eyes lit with excitement. 'I can't thank you enough for giving me this chanceand I hope you'll get on with your charges. Lady Mary arranged it for me. She said they're a little bit difficult, but I'm sure you'll be fine.'
'Yes, I'm certain I shall,' Sarah agreed and laughed. 'How hard can it be to look after a young lady and a boy of thirteen?'